The Second Coming of Superman
- Monday, June 26, 2006
It's a bird! It's a plane! No, wait ... it's Jesus! At least that's what some Christians are seeing in the long-anticipated "Superman Returns," which flies into theaters this week, after decades of failed attempts at sequels.
A savior figure who returns to earth after a long absence. A stab wound. A death, in a crucifix-like position. Even a resurrection.
The allusions between Warner Brothers' Superman Returns and the Bible story are obvious, says Stephen Skelton, author of The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero (Harvest House). He quotes from the film to prove it:
"When Jor-El, Superman's father, sends him to Earth, he says, ‘Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all - their capacity for good - I have sent them you... my only son.' The metaphor was clearly there," Skelton insists, with more than a trace of excitement. "And they're both named "El," which is the Greek word for ‘God.'"
During the past few weeks, the Internet has echoed Skelton, fueling more talk about whether Superman is a Christ figure. USA Today and MSNBC recently joined the banter, with stories that explored the different ways in which people perceive the hero - including Christians.
Of course, The Advocate, a popular homosexual magazine, also ran a cover story that questioned whether Superman was gay. When it comes to analogies, therefore, maybe truth is in the eye of the beholder.
Not surprisingly, Warner Brothers hasn't discouraged this kind of speculation. Like many studios since The Passion of the Christ, they've retained Grace Hill Media, a Christian public relations firm, to court the Christian press - and even arranged interviews with a surprised but delighted Skelton.
"To shy away from the symbolic aspects would be silly of me," says Bryan Singer, who wrote the screenplay and directed Superman Returns. "They're obviously there… If you grow up in a Judeo-Christian context, these things are in your consciousness and find their way into your work."
Singer, a University of Southern California film school graduate, experienced a strong association as a boy with the superhero that launched a genre, after being created in 1938 by DC Comics.
"I'm adopted and an only child," he says. "I was Jewish growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. Knowing these things I always felt a little different. Here was this guy who was adopted, an only child. He also had blue eyes, and I had blue eyes."
Since Superman: The Movie, which starred Christopher Reeve and was directed by Hollywood legend Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) in 1978, and its three, less-popular successors (Superman II, III and IV), Hollywood has made several attempts to get Superman off the ground again. Entertainment Weekly reported that during the late '90s, director Tim Burton tapped Nicolas Cage (who even named his second child Kal-El) for the role. In 2002, Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, Red Dragon) considered everyone from James Marsden and Josh Hartnett to Ashton Kutcher for the part. Then director McG (Charlie's Angels) considered the largely unknown, youthful Brandon Routh - who has finally made it to the screen in Singer's version - as late as 2004. That project crashed when, reportedly, the aviophobic director refused to board an airplane for Australia, where the film was scheduled to shoot.
Singer, who directed the first two movies in the successful X-Men series and executive produces Fox's award-winning television show, House, M.D., has long had ideas about a very down-to-earth superhero - one who carried the story forward from Superman II, while also incorporating elements from all the films. Three years ago, he found himself at a conference with Donner and his wife.
"I asked if I could bend their ear for a moment. I said, ‘What would you think if I made a Superman movie? I wouldn't remake your movie. I would make a return story. He would return to a world that has moved on.' He thought it was a fantastic idea, and I got his first blessing," he says.
Singer immediately went into preproduction, working simultaneously on script development. To get the film onscreen, the self-admitted workaholic has labored up to 17 hours a day for the past two years. If his efforts pay off, however, this could be the biggest Superman project yet.
Skelton agrees. "The  movie impacted us in ways we couldn't describe," he says, in the introduction to his book. "It communicated a message that we longed to hear and were desperate to have confirmed, but didn't yet comprehend why. We were kids. Which is why the movie came to mean even more to us as we grew older. For me, it has meant the most in the last few years."
Of course, Skelton sees the limitations in the gospel analogy - even if the Hollywood spin machine doesn't.
"Man needs a savior, and the only savior who can fix him for eternity is Christ," he says. "A movie like Superman comes out and people feel the call of a savior on their lives. They go and they get a fix, and the church needs to be there to start the conversation which takes them from Superman to the ‘super man,' Christ Jesus. If the church isn't there, people will keep going to savior movies to get a fix."
Although Singer won't deny the Christian connection, he nevertheless insists that audiences should draw their own conclusions. "It's primarily an action-adventure movie, but if you don't care about the people that the action-adventure is happening to, you don't care. The final achievement is if that emotional journey can identify with your consciousness. But again, when you take it from the filmmaker's lips, you take something away from the audience. It's for them to see and feel, not for me to say, you know? I don't want to spoil it for anyone."
Still, even Singer can't help but be intrigued by all the talk "My aunt Arlene is a born-again Christian and she's coming to the premiere," he says. "It will be interesting to see how she reacts."
As for Skelton, he's just looking forward to opening day. "I plan to be in line to see if the 'second coming' is truly upon us," he jokes.
Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey, Warner Bros. Entertainment's Superman Returns opens nationwide on Wednesday, June 28, 2006.
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